Why Study the Fringe?

What Can the Cold Eye of Scholarship Reveal
About Contentious Theories of History and Science?

Each man then seeks to be self-sufficient and prides himself
on subscribing to his own peculiar beliefs about all things.
Henceforth men are united only by interests and not by ideas,
and it almost seems as if the opinions of mankind
are nothing more than intellectual dust,
blown about by every wind
and unable to coalesce into any fixed shape.

 — Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
(Library of America, 2004, p. 487)

By Ronald Fritze
Posted on Monday, January 7, 2013, from Athens, Alabama

The title of this essay poses a couple of good questions that not only deserve an answer, but also need an answer in the context of our course of study as well as the wider context of historical inquiry.

Students of history and science often refer to pseudo-history and pseudoscience as fringe knowledge or marginal knowledge. It sits outside the pale of mainstream or respectable scholarship. That is very true in the world of the so-called Ivory Tower. When it comes to pseudo-history, except in the case of Holocaust Denial, the Ivory Tower is very towering. Many academic scholars take a condescending attitude to pseudo-history. They view it with contempt. Their instinct is to ignore it. If pressed, they peremptorily dismiss it without offering any argument based on evidence. Contempt did not work with the Nazis and blithe dismissal did not work with Velikovsky. There is a better way to peer into the looking glass.

This History May Not Have Happened,
But It Sells like Snake Oil and Swampland.

From my viewpoint, scholars have a duty to take pseudo-history seriously. That is why I have become a historian of history that didn’t happen. And, if you’re looking for a working definition of pseudo-history, then start there: it’s history that didn’t happen. Our duty as scholars and as teachers is to make that point crystal clear. Here’s why.

First, we all encounter pseudo-history and pseudoscience on a frequent basis. It’s part of the intellectual fabric of modern society. Yes, scholars can place pseudo-history on the fringes. They can label it quite appropriately as among the “weird things,” and call it “invented knowledge,” “counter-knowledge,” “rejected knowledge,” or “stigmatized knowledge.” But the story is quite different when one departs from academia into the mainstream and its far-flung media outlets, a wilding place where the practitioners of pulp and the manipulators of malleable subcultures consider a lot of pseudo-history to be marketable to the max.

Some pseudo-historical books sell very well, often better than mainstream historical works published by commercial publishers. Pseudo-historical ideas get more than their fair share of air time on documentaries. Apparently, the Ancient Aliens documentary is so popular that it has become a successful series with two seasons already in the can. Commercial TV is about getting people to watch the show and then selling advertisements. A big audience means that the advertising can be sold for more. Hence, the History Channel has moved into reality TV with Swamp People and Axe Men. You can find other examples of pseudo-pop by picking up the remote and taking a quick tour of the cable lineup.

Fast and Loose with the Facts
Is No Barrier to Pop Credibility.

Let’s face it: How can historians sitting in an archive reading old documents, or archaeologists brushing sand off of pot shards with an extra soft brush — how can they compete with that kind of fantastical action? One fears that professional wrestling will be the next move if the peculiar history of the SYFY Channel is anything to go by.

Furthermore, the Internet has very much democratized knowledge. Anyone can get a domain name and set up a website for a minimal expenditure. The webs spun in these cyber realms are personal domains beyond the rule of credibility, with the owner as sole master or mistress of the property. Result: People with all sorts of opinions and hypotheses can present their ideas to anyone who will listen. One wonders what Tocqueville, the author of the epigram heading this essay, would have to say about the technological Babel we have entered into.

Some of the myriad ideas found on the Internet are pretty eccentric. Some are downright disturbing and in some cases even illegal. But thanks to word processing software, html code, cheap web servers, and the free-wheeling Internet, fringe ideas can be presented as a very slick and professional package, often as good or better than academically sound websites. How can the unwary or the distracted tell the difference?

Being skeptical, employing critical thinking, and taking the time to fact-check is the way to go. These activities require hard work, but hard work is part of the process of continuous learning that makes life so interesting for many of us.

Teacher Be Ready . . . .

Another key issue facing thinkers in this arena relates to teachers or those altruistic students who are planning to become a teacher. Teacher hear this: Be prepared for the intrusion of pseudo-history into your classroom. It's sure to come your way.

Educators should understand that their students are bombarded by pseudo-history in a manner unprecedented in history, except in totalitarian states, where the masters of information propagandized history into pseudo-history to serve ideology and stealth political objectives. Teachers should be prepared for questions from students who have come across a morsel or two of pseudo-history, most likely delivered by television or the Internet. Some students are likely to mention these morsels in a class discussion, or cite a bogus website in a research paper.

In Search of Origins
And Racial Identity in Ancient Egypt

Recently, I reviewed Black Genesis: The Prehistoric Origins of Ancient Egypt, the latest book from the pen of Robert Bauval (with his current co-author Thomas Brophy). It was published by Bear & Company, a division of Inner Traditions International. For someone familiar with the publishing world of pseudo-scholarship, Bear & Company specializes in books on fringe topics about ancient history and other New Age topics that advocate rather than debunk those subjects. Caveat Emptor!

As the sub-title reveals, Bauval’s book is about the origins of ancient Egyptian civilization, a heavily debated topic. Professional archaeologists seek definitive answers, but spotty archaeological survivals and the incomplete and sometime contradictory nature of existing archaeological records work against sharp and clear definitions and conclusions. So, the professional debate is fierce.

Pseudo-historians also have their theories, ones they’re not eager or able to raise on sound scholarship. Some argue that Egyptian civilization appeared fully formed, relatively suddenly. Current archaeological knowledge has rendered the sudden-appearance theory untenable, but it still persists. Taking another tack, some pseudo-historians favor the idea that Egyptians were Atlantian refugees, which is why their civilization appears to spring out of nowhere. Others look to the sky and claim that alien astronauts taught the Egyptians their civilized ways. Holy Stargate!

Astronomers, Cattle-Herders,
And the Supposed Link to Black Egypt

Mercifully, Bauval and Brophy avoid those extreme crank ideas in their book. But they are not innocents who accidentally picked a suspect publisher either. In the early chapters, they describe an ancient Sahara that actually experienced rain. It was the homeland for a cattle-herding culture in prehistoric times about 6000 to 4000 BC. This is solid information. But Bauval is an author who made his career pushing extreme archaeo-astronomy. His first book, The Orion Mystery (1994), asserted that the pyramid complex was based on the belt of the Orion constellation.

No wonder that Bauval and Brophy spend a lot of time describing what formidable astronomers the ancient cattle-herders were. They even created their own Stonehenge, only it was far older. Also, it was far, far smaller. How small you ask? Well, a troop of Boy Scouts could have muscled most of those stones into place. I don’t dispute that the cattle-herders had an impressive knowledge of the movements of the stars. Goodness knows, in a relatively dry climate viewing skies unobscured by industrial pollution of any sort, including ambient light, would have made for ideal viewing.

According to Bauval, these cattle herders moved into the Nile Valley and created Egyptian civilization. In doing so, they passed on their detailed knowledge of astronomy to succeeding generations. Ancient peoples were acute observers of the natural world, far more attuned to the sky, the weather, the soil, the plants, and the animals around them than we are today. However, Bauval fails to demonstrate the utility of this knowledge for the cattle-herders and their society, whereas the utility for the ancient Egyptians is pretty clear, although somewhat over-emphasized by Bauval.

By choosing the term Black Genesis to anchor their title, Bauval and Brophy tend to lose their moral compass. They staunchly assert that ancient Egypt was a black civilization, an assertion that ignites intense controversy among academics and students of Egyptology. Afrocentric readers will embrace Black Genesis, but among mainstream scholars, the blackness of the ancient Egyptians is not a given. Egyptian archaeologists reject the idea and so do the great majority of western archaeologists of Egypt.

To these claims, Afrocentrists cry racism.

Mainstream scholars reply that the evidence is just not there.

Bauval and Brophy do present one bit of evidence: The current inhabitants of the oases, who are the remnant of the ancient Saharan cattle-herders, are black. But the links between way back then and right up now are broken links, and thus fail to answer the question, “Were the ancient cattle-herders black?” One cannot know.

Physical or Cultural?
It's the Myth of the Continents.

Afrocentrists by their nature focus on the continent of Africa. They view it and present it as a self-contained world, a demonstration of the so-called myth of the continents. True, Africa is a continent in terms of physical geography. But in terms of cultural geography, Africa is not a self-contained whole. At the very least, it consists of two broad culture areas. One is the sub-Saharan area, a region that is indubitably inhabited by black people. North of this black Africa is the Sahara Desert. On the other side of the desert is the Mediterranean littoral of Africa. The Berber peoples of North Africa have traditionally been classified as Caucasian.

While North Africa had contact with sub-Saharan Africa, its primary culture world was the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. In between these two worlds, the nomadic tribes of the Sahara such as the Tuaregs are also traditionally classified as Caucasian. From prehistoric times until the present, considerable mixing of these ethnic groups has occurred.

The Nile Valley is an anomaly in this picture. The Nile River provides a link between the Mediterranean world and the Sub-Saharan Africa. Ancient Egypt maintained sustained and close contact with ancient Nubia or Cush, and beyond them with the ancient kingdoms of Ethiopia, all of which were lands inhabited by black people. But were those prehistoric cattle-herders of Bauval and Brophy also black? Afrocentrists say, yes. Other archaeologists say, not proven.

Also, mainstream archaeologists fully accept that cattle-herders from the dwindling Saharan savannahs did enter and settle in the Nile Valley and were founders of ancient Egypt. And they may very well have been black. Those cattle-herders were Egyptians but they weren’t “the” earliest Egyptians. Such a view ignores the cultures of the Delta region of Egypt, whose people may have migrated from what is now Libya, Arabia, or the Levant. Mainstream archaeologists seek to find a consensus theory that incorporates all the archaeological findings.

At the Fringe,
Alternatives Become Competitors.
Which Shall Prevail?

It seems to me that Bauval and Brophy spend considerable energy seemingly playing to an Afrocentric constituency of readers. Bauval and Brophy would protest this opinion. Bottom line: It remains up to discerning individual readers to read, study, think, and then draw their own conclusions.

To help, I suggest a studious reading of Tony Wilkinson’s Genesis of the Pharaohs. It covers much the same ground as Black Genesis and provides an alternative. Let’s see who truly wins in this arena of competitive plausibility. Thus, we enter into the realm of Fringe History, Pseudo Science, and Popular Culture. Let our summer of learning begin.

on the throne

History always has been and always will be regularly rewritten,
in response to new questions, new information, new methodologies,
and new political, social, and cultural imperatives.
But that each generation can and must rewrite history
does not mean that history is simply a series of myths
and inventions. There are commonly accepted professional standards
that enable us to distinguish good history from falsehoods
like the denial of the Holocaust. Historical truth does exist,
not in the scientific sense but as a reasonable approximation
of the past. But the most difficult truth for those outside the ranks
of professional historians to accept is that there often exists
more than one legitimate way of recounting past events.
[Quote from the preface of Eric Foner,Who Owns History?
Rethinking the Past in a Changing World
(2002), p. xvii]

Ronald H. Fritze, Ph.D.
Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Professor of History
Athens State University
Founders Hall 221
Athens, AL 35611